Blu-Ray Review : "4 Symphonies" (Thomas Dausgaard & Danish National Symphony Orchestra)

"Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue."

-- Plato

Breaking new ground here (slightly longish post) -- I love music, and I love watching "stuff" (preferably on big screens). So when presented with the opportunity to "watch some music," honestly, it was an offer I could not refuse! And frankly, my musings on books are not really reviews,  as in, I do not write/rank books nor do I write about the ones that did not appeal to me, for whatever reason. But until I come up with (or am helpfully supplied with) another name for such posts, they shall remain reviews. On the other hand, I do review bikes on my other blog (a semi-regular activity which shall commence its second year shortly) where I try to provide a subjective-objective assessment as opposed to a purely subjective opinion. With this post, I will attempt to straddle the fuzzy boundary between matters of pure opinion and empirical evidence in the realm of music. 

Honest disclaimer: I am not a music critic, nor do I want to be one. I enjoy music as much as any other fan of music, and (as with the book posts) this process is me trying to appreciate music "better,"  and then be able to express it in a presentable fashion. If it also helps you understand some new aspect of music - hey, two for one! So here goes:

But, Isn't Music Supposed To Be Heard? Why "Watch" It?

Having witnessed Thomas Dausgaard 'in action' with the Seattle Symphony very recently, and come out of that experience completely spellbound by his interpretation of the works of Sibelius, I was interested in hearing more of his repertoire. Browsing through his discography on his website -- once you get past the stream of popular and critical acclaim -- this unique Blu-ray caught my eye! 

While it is true that music is primarily meant to be consumed via aural pathways, a musical performance is also supplemented by the visual cues from the performers. Particularly in an ensemble setting, as is commonly seen in the Western classical music performances, the visual synergy of the participants is an important aspect of enjoying the music as much as the music itself. I believe that music can be enjoyed in a more wholesome fashion if we tie it with other sensory inputs and taken altogether, these seemingly disjoint percepts join forces to give us a complete 'experience' that sometimes goes beyond what the team of composer and conductor intended.

Dausgaard certainly helps in this department as he is himself a very animated presence onstage, and while the typical concert hall setting leaves him facing away from the audience for most of the performance, it is through video captured from various angles around the ensemble that we can truly appreciate the intensity of his conducting! As one reviewer writes, he "... conducts from the heart ..." and the evidence is both visible and audible in the performances.

OK, So What About The Music?

The presentation is divided into four parts/chapters, each devoted to one of the titular symphonies - 
  • Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876)
  • Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 ‘From the New World’ (1893)
  • Nielsen: Symphony No. 3, Op. 27 (FS60) ‘Sinfonia espansiva’ (1911)
  • Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 (1919 - final version)
Spanning around forty-five years of a great period of transition in the development of the symphony, these performances also serve to highlight Dausgaard's understanding of the musical motifs and expressions as popular during the times these works premiered.

I will not go into the details of every track - except for one of my personal favorites - The fourth movement of Brahms First (Adagio). An intense piece of composition (to begin with), Dausgaard takes the intensity several notches higher with an uncanny sense of tempo changes, notes suspension, dynamics between the sections, and most importantly (and rarely seen) -- a sort of collaborative synergy across sections! The video is also available here in HD - fourth movement starts at 30:38.

The audio is available as a dual channel stereo (2.0) or a five channel surround (5.0). The 2.0 sound is probably the most faithful to the soundstage of an analog recording (though the quality is light years behind) and is best heard through a personal listening device like headphones. The 5.0 audio is a slightly panned-out version of the sound mix, giving a better sense of space of the performances. Both recordings are top-notch digital reproductions!

And The Blu-ray? 

Gorgeous! is the first word that comes to mind when we see the results of the high-definition (HD) video captures of the performances. For me personally, it is very important to connect to both the artist and the music, and these videos provide an almost intimate glimpse of the performers while they are on stage.  I wish more organizations would follow this model of encapsulating both the audio and visual "experiences" for viewers!

Here are some screenshots of the presentation:

The synergy in the players ...

and in between the sections !! 

Her expression says it all ...